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Solar is having an electrifying impact in California, and the Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing Program (SOMAH) is a key driver of solar access for low-income communities. This statewide initiative is designed to deliver renewable energy and credits on energy bills to residents in multifamily affordable housing. 

SOMAH prioritizes communities that are disproportionately impacted by climate change, known as disadvantaged communities (DACs). DACs are identified through a combination of geographic, socioeconomic, public health and environmental hazard criteria outlined by CalEnviroScreen. SOMAH seeks to level the playing field for these communities by implementing and expanding sustainable infrastructure that directly benefits tenants.

In Oakland, California, one senior housing complex is leading the charge. St. Mary’s Garden (SMG), home to a predominantly senior, immigrant and Chinese-speaking community,  exemplifies SOMAH’s resident-centered approach. From the beginning, residents and property management recognized SOMAH’s potential to provide economic relief and a more comfortable lifestyle for tenants through solar energy and energy efficient upgrades. 

Navigating Solar with Technical Assistance

To bring the solar project to life, SMG enrolled in SOMAH's Upfront Technical Assistance (TA) pathway in the fall of 2020. The close collaboration with  SOMAH’s Technical Assistance and Support Services team helped the property navigate project feasibility, complex financial structures, detailed project bids and larger energy efficiency opportunities.

Gideon Anders, a board member for SMG, acknowledged the challenges faced during the project, such as additional rounds of contractor bidding and solar layout iterations. However, he emphasized that overcoming these hurdles was essential to maximize the economic relief provided to the residents.

By the end of 2023, the solar photovoltaic (PV) system was mechanically complete alongside comprehensive energy-saving retrofits across the property.  

A Holistic Approach to Sustainability

The SOMAH project at SMG extended beyond solar installation, catalyzing larger energy efficiency upgrades. After a thorough evaluation of the property’s existing conditions and systems by the SOMAH TA team, SMG was referred to and enrolled in three energy efficiency programs. With funding from these initiatives, outdated equipment was replaced with more efficient models and natural gas equipment was removed. These upgrades will improve indoor air quality, increase building safety and enhance resident comfort in every season.

Not only did these upgrades improve the daily lives of the residents, but the property saw a reduction in operation and maintenance costs, amplifying overall property savings.

SOMAH Program Manager Staci Rivas expressed pride in supporting projects like SMG across California.  “SMG is an example of a success story where a solar installation incentivized by SOMAH can be complemented by a more comprehensive building retrofit that directly impacts residents through utility bill savings,” she said.

Empowering Tenants Through Education

SOMAH’s multidimensional approach also includes a focus on tenant engagement and education. Ongoing TA fostered long-term relationships between SOMAH and SMG and allowed for a smooth transition to tenant education.  

In September 2023, four in-person tenant education workshops were conducted by the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), a local community-based organization and SOMAH partner committed to creating clean environments in which their communities thrive. APEN facilitated the workshops over two weeks in both English and Chinese with the support of on-site translators. With a total attendance of 71 tenants, the workshops were instrumental in enhancing residents’ understanding of the SOMAH Program and their excitement for future bill savings.

APEN State Organizer Ayesha Abbasi reflected on the experience as one of dynamic tenant engagement. "Residents were curious and energized about the new source of energy being created right there at their doorsteps,” she said. “There was a flurry of questions in English, Cantonese and Mandarin about how solar works and what the potential savings could be.”  

A lot of heart went into supporting this community-oriented project. It was a full circle moment for APEN and others involved with the project, reflecting  years of community trust and relationship building with tenants at SMG.

Celebrating Solar Success

The culmination of this project was celebrated  at a SMG ribbon cutting in January 2024, which saw a record-breaking turnout of tenants. Tenants generously shared their experiences with the audience, highlighting the profound impact of the project. For SMG tenant and APEN member Joseph Wang, the solar installation is a step toward a green, clean and safe living environment. "The earth is the common home of all mankind, and everyone has the responsibility to protect the environment," he said.

As SOMAH reflects on this achievement, it acts as a guide for future solar and energy efficiency projects. SOMAH congratulates SMG and its amazing community and reaffirms our commitment to a sustainable future for all.  

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